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Unchain My Heart

[whitespace] James D. Houston Greg Pio

Profound Dilemma: Writer Houston fears that the rise of chains hurts the network of independent outlets.


Can the cultural life of a community survive the arrival of a mega-bookstore?

By James D. Houston

A YEAR AGO, I visited the island of Kaua'i, where a big new Borders bookstore had recently opened, outside the main town of Lihu'e. I was glad to see it. On that island, there had never been a bookstore of any consequence, certainly not one set up to host literary readings and public events. I was there to read from a then-new novel which happens to be set in Hawai'i, and I was thinking, "Five years earlier, this could not have happened."

Thanks to Borders Books and Music, Kaua'i now has a well-stocked store and the resources to offer an attractive range of public programs. This is indeed an important service. Borders came in, and the literary life of an island community is the richer for it.

In a friendlier world, this is what you'd hope a new store could always do--fill a need, bring in something that wasn't already there. Unfortunately, when it come to mega-bookstores, such stories are few and far between. Typically, the chain does not aspire to develop a new market. Rather, its outlet will open right across the street or down the block from a successful and thriving independent store which in most cases has nurtured the very market the chain will soon absorb.

Two or three years go by, and the independent folds. Often other stores in the nearby neighborhoods fold, and the only one left standing is the chain store, whose manager will say this fallout is regrettable, but business is business and what else can you expect when you offer people superior marketing and better prices?

In the past dozen years, this has happened repeatedly all across the country, while the independents repeatedly cry foul. We are losing out, they say, because the playing field has not been level. According to lawsuits now pending before several district courts, the chains can underprice the independents by taking advantage of favorable discounts and credit rates.

Similar cases have been in and out of court since the early 1980s, and the chains always deny that anything deceptive is going on. But in the most recent judgment, the American Booksellers Association won a $25 million settlement against Penguin Books, who'd been offering secret discounts not available to independents.

Whether you call this healthy competition or survival of the fattest, the result is the same. According to the ABA, nationwide in the past 10 years more than 2,000 small and independent bookstores have had to close. It is a heartbreaking spectacle.

FOR A PERSON who loves books, a big book-filled store ought to be a blessing. One wants to spread the arms wide and cry, "The bigger the better, the more the merrier!" But for me, as a working writer, trying to get along in this world of printing and publishing, the rise of the chains has created a profound dilemma. The cost of these megastores has been the systematic sacrifice of our network of independent outlets, and it's a horrendous price to pay. In the long run, it is bad for literature, it is bad for publishing, and it chips away at our cultural life.

Consider the effect of this struggle on the small and independent presses, who have been caught in the same squeeze. As the large trade presses in New York negotiate preferential treatment, it is harder and harder for smaller presses to get their books into a marketplace ever more controlled by the omnipresent chains. It is harder to compete for shelf space, some of which has to be purchased outright.

When John Grisham's newest novel has a first printing of 2.8 million copies in hardback, this gives his publisher a promotion budget that allows for, among other things, the purchase of point-of-entry floor space in every chain store in the land. It is bought by the square foot, at the national level. A small or independent press, for whom a first print run might be 4,000 to 5,000 copies, cannot begin to enter this kind of marketing area. And we see them falling by the wayside.

Why should we care? Traditionally, small presses have been the venues for more experimental work, less commercial work, work by talented writers looking for ways to get published. For many years their allies, their most reliable outlets have been the network of independent retailers--nowadays steadily disappearing.

As this arm of publishing is choked off, what happens? We begin to see a reduction in the range of books made available to the reading public, and something begins to be lost in our cultural life.

It may not be long before we find, in the world of books, the kind of situation that has prevailed for years in the world of film, where three or four big distributors control the exhibition of films shown in most U.S. theaters. This has now been going on for so long we have almost forgotten about the range of films that could be shown and are in fact being made, but seldom get seen outside festivals, special screenings and campus film series. Every year great documentaries get made; wonderful films come out of Asia and Europe that never reach commercial U.S. theaters. The distributors' lock on the industry includes quite a bit of control over what we are allowed to view, based upon which films they believe will be most profitable.

AS THE IDEA of a downtown Borders store looms before us, I hope there is still time to ask ourselves some probing questions. The first is, Does this community need another bookstore?

If you look around, you discover that we already have a score and more, of varying sizes, with the widest possible range of interests.

Among them we have Gateways, Logos, Herland, Linda's Bible Bookstore, the Literary Guillotine, Seeds of Change, the History Museum Shop, Mockingbird, and UCSC's Baytree, along with two excellently stocked general-interest stores, well established and nationally known for their public programs and quality of service. Year after year, some of the most famous writers in the country are drawn here by the reading programs offered at Bookshop Santa Cruz and Capitola Book Cafe.

If Borders comes in, the experience of numerous communities across the land tells us that some of these stores will have to yield. Unlike Crown, a Borders store is usually very attractive, very seductive. If one opens here, it will almost certainly succeed. Is this what we want? Should we welcome a corporate giant that will take over a pre-existing market and eliminate the competition? Do we want to witness the slow unraveling of five or six or seven local businesses? And if so, what will we gain in return?

More jobs? It sounds like a trade-off, if one store opens while others sooner or later will be forced to close.

Another deli-cafe with multiple coffee options? As it is, we are more than well supplied with cappuccino hangouts.

A megastore in the middle of Pacific Avenue? If we needed a new store, as they did in Lihu'e, it would be a different matter. But we don't. In the availability of books, magazines and periodicals we are already well served and have been for quite some time.

I hear people talking about doing what's best for the downtown business climate. Wouldn't it be a good investment to honor the years of effort and commitment by owners and managers who have already contributed so much to this town's cultural and literary life?


A Santa Cruz resident for 37 years, James D. Houston received a 1999 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for his most recent novel, The Last Paradise.

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From the September 1-8, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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